Single shoppers get a few breaks


Niche: As the number of one-person households increases, merchants try to meet their needs.

September 02, 2001|By Jeff Barker | By Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

If a hardware store could speak, it would speak of home. It would speak of Dad buying tools, paint, garden hose and grass seed and sundry other accessories of American domestic family life.

It would not necessarily speak to the single person, at least not until recently. Hardware store marketers have lately begun to notice that unmarried folks also need paint, extension cords, spackle. The retail chain Ace Hardware, for example, has been changing its tone, tinkering with the store signs and colors in hopes of seeming more friendly to women and others whom no one calls "Dad."

So it goes elsewhere in retail. Travel agents, bulk-good stores and food purveyors are shifting their marketing and advertising - even the look of products - to reflect the growth in the numbers of Americans who live alone or with unmarried partners.

Some singles advocacy groups say it's about time, and more might be done. The group says its members who live alone demand everything from pizzas for one to less expensive vacation options to smaller Christmas trees.

Faith Rodell, a Christmas tree retailer in the Washington area, says many singles want a tree without the hassles of lugging it into a small apartment and positioning it in a stand.

"They want that little touch of tradition," Rodell said. So, she stocks miniature trees with the stands already on.

"Our lot seems to be a late-night date spot. They don't have to worry about anything: Just add water," she said.

While Rodell gives singles the option of a suitable tree, she benefits in sales: The Washington area is a haven for young, unmarried professionals.

"Companies are starting to recognize singles because the Census figures show the numbers are there," said Thomas F. Coleman, executive director of the American Association for Single People, a group based in Southern California that claims 1,200 members and calls itself a "human rights" advocate for the unmarried.

But Coleman says merchants have a long way to go: "We're living in a society of volume discounts."

The proportion of one-person homes has increased from 17 percent in 1970 to 26 percent today, accounting for 26.7 million households. The number of same-sex households also rose sharply.

The single folks may be widowed, divorced or never-married.

According to the Census Bureau, the median age of first marriage for women rose by 4.3 years between 1970 and 2000 to 25.1 years. For men, the increase was 3.6 years to a median age of 26.8.

Elderly women form another large pool of singles - nearly 19 million women 65 and older live alone, compared with 14 million men that age.

"Women live longer than men, so there is this huge female older population and they have money to spend," said Helen Dennis, a University of Southern California lecturer specializing in aging and retirement.

Bracing for baby boomers

Dennis says some service industries have come around to recognizing single seniors' needs. Many, but not all, retirement communities are adept at staging social activities to keep members from being isolated, she says.

But Dennis says the real change - affecting the millions of senior singles living at home - will come over the next few decades as baby boomers retire.

"I think they're going to command a whole different response. The boomer movement is going to drive a lot of industry," she said.

Where industry fails, singles groups are trying to fill the void. The organizations say that singles all too often still feel they're living in a couples' world and that their needs are just now being recognized.

Coleman says his single rights' group, formed in 1999, wants to do for single people what the AARP has done for the elderly.

He says singles need an advocate because politicians often slight them in forming policy.

"Why won't politicians say the `S' word? Maybe they're afraid if you show respect and say equal rights for single people, somebody will twist that around and say you're anti-family," Coleman said.

Another group, Singles Source, headquartered in Palm Desert, Calif., offers the unmarried an array of products and services - everything from meeting new people online to travel tips.

For example, the group's magazine says it will tell members how to shed "old relationship" baggage. It also says it can help singles avoid "sitting alone on a beach surrounded by cavorting couples and families."

The travel industry has long been a target of singles' ire.

"On cruise ships and even in all-inclusive resorts, we don't see as much of a discount for a single person as I would like," said Lynda Maxwell, president of Destinations Inc., of Columbia, Md.

Maxwell says a cruise ship may charge two people $1,100 apiece for a cabin "but just one person is going to get charged close to $2,000. It's very frustrating to pay double and be alone."

Increasingly, she says, cruise lines are offering to waive the extra singles' charge to promote a specific sailing.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.